Can Sacha Baron Cohen be Borat and speak the truth? – The attacker
For some time now, Sacha Baron Cohen has struggled to juggle several characters.
On the one hand, like Borat, Bruno and his coterie of characters on “Who is America”, he is a caricatural sounding board of America’s worst qualities. On the other hand, he is an increasingly serious and characterless activist, a staunch opponent of the failure of social media companies to curb disinformation. The center between these two poles often struggles to hold together, and its solution seems to be a clean break. He recently announced that he was remove Borat, but not before releasing an Amazon special “Borat’s American Lockdown”, released today on Prime Video.
On its own, the 35-minute special, billed as an A&E reality TV show, is a collection of unused “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” footage, taken from his five days of living with two Trump supporters, Jim and Jerry. The comedy’s special objectives – although there aren’t many new jokes – but it also features an icon of an Illuminati pyramid whenever Jim or Jerry pitch conspiracy theories. These conspiracies are not being left behind. Six short films collectively called “Debunking Borat,” each dedicated to challenging one of Jim and Jerry’s misrepresentations, will follow and play automatically if you don’t stop them.
Maybe the point is to lure people in with the comedy and then provide them with the facts, but if those who need Baron Cohen’s message most will hear it, it seems like a dice game. It certainly doesn’t help that they’re still the butt of the joke.
In the ‘American Lockdown’ special, Jim and Jerry witness Borat’s usual shtick – with prominent Alexa product placement and aerobic exercise with a strap-on. As in the movie, the couple also reject their guest’s pseudoscientist “owner’s manual” for their daughter. How Jim and Jerry can refuse to believe that fetuses are developing in a woman’s head even as they willingly accept the right-hand claptrap is murky, and although they ultimately turn out to be likable, the two are presented as weirdos who let a stranger stay with them during a pandemic.
Even before that, a warning card warns of upcoming conspiracy theories, while expecting “the vast majority” of viewers of the special to not believe them. There are already presumptions and judgments that could cause believers in protests funded by QAnon or Soros to quit their screens. The message seems clear: it’s not for them.
This post makes short films useful for “Demystifying Borat” jarring and paternalistic. Each segment has Jerry and Jim sitting down with experts explaining why everything from the duck of George Soros’ collaboration with the Nazis to microchips in the COVID vaccine is not true. Seeking to educate them – and hopefully some curious viewers – their tone couldn’t be more different than the mock documentary.
Borat is largely absent from “Demystifying Borat”. Baron Cohen presents each segment as itself, and then another voice’s narration (sometimes marred by its deadly, serious repetition of Borat’s broken English) explains how conspiracy theories metastasize.
They are impressively effective explainers, at home with a Vox-style video. Their approach removes comedy from the equation – despite the comedic pitfalls that prompted them. As a result, each installment is pretty absurd. Jumping from Borat holding an egg in his butt to a reporter intro on blood libel later in your queue makes the viewing odd.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to applaud this effort. “Debunking Borat” is clear-headed and employs historians and experts in science and in far-right online communities who carefully describe why and how these beliefs spread. If they weren’t from a “Borat” production, they wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. But as such, and even despite Baron Cohen’s efforts to step into the background, they reveal a tension between his role as a social satirist trickster – who himself tells a lot about Central Asia – and a man committed to the facts and fighting against sectarianism.
Hanging up Borat, Baron Cohen seems to have made his choice, but the transition is difficult. He may never be a simple messenger until he completely separates his character from the job. As the responses to his recent tweet about anti-Semitic hate can attest, many are unwilling to trust his bona fide activist after his years of playing the clown.
The most important test will be whether Baron Cohen, helped by experts, can at least convince people that they are wrong in their beliefs. Jim and Jerry appear to be the first test cases. They agree on some things, but for the most part remain unfazed. Alternative facts are not going anywhere, even though Borat is.